Bomb Squad"

PBS Airdate: October 21, 1997
Go to the companion Web site

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on NOVA, an IRA bomb has been planted.

POLICE OFFICER: Go back up the street. It is not safe. Move.

ANNOUNCER: Someone must defuse it, quickly, safely.

SHANE O'DOHERTY: It's the most incredible hour I'd ever seen unleashed.And all from striking a box of matches.

ANNOUNCER: In this deadly cat-and-mouse game, science is the key to survival. Bomb Squad.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation. Dedicated to education and quality television.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and viewers like you.

NARRATOR: Approaching a terrorist bomb requires a special kind of courage. This soldier is a member of an elite corps of the British army which disarms terrorist bombs. It is the busiest bomb squad in the world. Since the Irish Republican Army began using bombs in 1972, this unit has been called to over 30,000 incidents in Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. The IRA's bombing campaign instigated a deadly game of cat-and-mouse that has led to highly sophisticated counter-terrorist tactics. But ultimately, it is a war of nerves: one man against the bomb. This final approach is often described as the Long Walk. Eventually, he is so close to the bomb, his body armor cannot save him. Beyond this point, only his training and experience will protect him.

MAN: Aagh! Aagh! Aagh! Get off me! Get off me, Pig! Pig! Aagh! Where's me hand?! Aagh! Get off me! Get off me!

NARRATOR: In this exercise, a small homemade bomb has accidentally gone off in the bedroom of a bomb-maker's house. The bomb disposal technician must ensure there's no risk of other devices detonating. There is a constant fear of booby-traps. These soldiers learn to live with the unpredictable danger—Hence, their nickname, Felix, after the cat with nine lives. These buildings have seen some of the most fiendish plots to catch the bomb disposal man off-guard. Situated deep inside an army base, the location of this specially built town is secret. It is part of the Felix training center, where soldiers learn to outwit the terrorist.

STUDENT OPERATOR: Stand by! Firing!

NARRATOR: To get inside the mind of the enemy, they must learn the secrets of a long list of lethal devices. This is a terrorist bomb factory staffed by the British army. These men are manufacturing do-it-yourself bombs to exact terrorist specifications. The semtex blocks and detonators contain no explosive, but the circuits are real, so they can test the skills of the people who must defuse them. They are taught never to underestimate the cold-blooded precision of IRA bombs. In 1984, the IRA planted a huge bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton on the south coast of England. It had been left months before and was timed to go off when the Conservative Party Conference was in town. Five people died, and many more suffered terrible injuries. Seven years later, 10 Downing Street was the target. The IRA launched a mortar bomb at the Prime Minister's residence, striking at the heart of government.

POLICE OFFICER: Go back up the street. It is not safe. Move.

NARRATOR: It was the climax of a violent campaign that had brought terror to the streets of London from Northern Ireland. Since the 70s, more than 3,000 people had been killed. The catalyst for the bombing campaign was the British army's violent suppression of a Civil Rights march in 1972. Northern Ireland was on the verge of civil war. Protestants wanted to remain under British rule. Catholics supported a united Ireland. On this day, what started as a peaceful demonstration turned into a riot. Thirteen Catholic civilians were shot dead by the British army. It became known as Bloody Sunday. The Provisional IRA vowed revenge. They sealed off the Catholic areas and recruited angry teenagers. It was easy for a schoolboy to become an IRA recruit.

SHANE O'DOHERTY: I had enough imagination to imagine I was like Michael Collins or Eamon DeValera. And the problem is, imagination doesn't allow for victims. It doesn't allow for civil rights and human rights. You're dealing with teenagers who are imagining this is a great war like in a movie, you know? Like Full Metal Jacket or something, you know, or The Specialist, you know, Man From Uncle, Illya Kuryakin and Napoleon Solo. It was a feat of imagination, and it was the puncturing of imagination at court and in prison that brought reality to bear. And that's where I now live in reality.

NARRATOR: Shane O'Doherty has spent most of his adult life in prison for his bombing activities. He is one of the few convicted IRA bombers to have written letters of apology to his victims while serving his sentence. He now renounces violence, but he carries with him chilling memories of his acts of terror.

SHANE O'DOHERTY: When I was the Brigade explosives officer for Derry at the age of 19, this nice-looking house—One of its upper rooms was my secret bomb factory. This was the place from which I made the timing devices for any of the bombs that would have worked in the city, any of the incendiary devices, any booby-traps. And in fact, I used to be able to sit at that upper window at night and say, "Incendiary devices will be going off in shops in the city center." And because we are on a raised part of the city here, we could see them. And within half an hour, the fire brigade next door would be racing off. So, we could time things to the minute, you know? We were all the time trying to improve devices and trying to avoid Felix ever getting time to get there and defuse it. So, you know, you were always trying to avoid the scenario where an army bomb disposal guy got there and got time to work on it.

NARRATOR: There have been many technical advances in the size and complexity of improvised bombs, as one of the army's chief counter-terrorist officers recalls.

COLONEL "W": It developed from some very crude early days, beginning in the early 70s, with a massive, uncoordinated campaign of bombing attacks to now some quite sophisticated techniques using modern electronics—to which we eventually produced some solutions. We lost operators in doing that early development work. As we produced a solution, they often produced a counter measure. If they produced a near threat, we produced a solution, and so on. So, it has been a game of technological leapfrog over the years.

NARRATOR: It was a game the bomb disposal men didn't always win. Twenty lost their lives tackling IRA bombs. Many more have been maimed and injured. It's hard to understand what motivates a bomber. Shane O'Doherty had his first experience when he was 15. Two IRA men asked him to hide a bomb they had failed to plant. They showed him how to use it.

SHANE O'DOHERTY: They said, "Well, it's a fuse bomb. You light these matches at the top of the fuse. There's a fizz, and you've got three minutes." So, I thought about it all evening, and thought, you know, well, how many people get this kind of chance to go from, you know, being a "nobody" in the IRA to actually getting a chance to do a prominent job and get in there, and be up front? So, I decided to kind of break the rules and take the bomb to its target myself. So, about 3:00 or 4:00 a.m., I sneaked out of bed, went back to the back shed, took this bomb, fearfully. You could probably have heard my heartbeat in London. It was a painfully fast heartbeat. And I carried it down the back alley here and up to the doorway of this building, you know, trembling with fear. I nevertheless rubbed the matches on the fuse, and there was a fizz, and I got the hell out of there. Then, there was this incredible boom, and there was a vast pool of gray dust and plaster in the air, and an eery silence. And I looked at it and thought, you know, this is the most incredible hour I had ever seen unleashed. And all from striking a box of matches.

WO-1 MICK KETTLE: In the late 60s, at the beginning of the current IRA campaign, devices were pretty crude and simple. A good example is a tin can—a nail bomb—basically a tin can filled with explosives, nails wrapped around it. We've got a short piece of burning fuse here to get the delay, and a detonator. And the terrorist would simply light the fuse and throw this in the direction of a patrol or maybe into a security forces base where it would explode. Obviously, as its drawbacks, if the fuse goes out, it's not going to explode. The guy has to be quite close to the area in order to deliver that device. And so, the terrorist is obviously looking for better ways of getting a device to an area with minimum risk to himself. One of the things they came up with was a simple electrical circuit, normally consistent of a battery, a timer of some description, and that simple electrical circuit can then be incorporated into its devices, which means it's much more reliable. The terrorist can deliver it quite a long time before he wants it to go off, and he doesn't have to be in the area when the device functions.

SHANE O'DOHERTY: That was one leap forward, like the arrival of batteries and clocks and electric detonators. But then, of course, very quickly after, the army began to defuse these simple timing devices. So then, we had to figure ways to deter the army bomb squad from defusing them during their 55-minute run until they exploded. So, groups of EOs—as we called our people, like explosives officers—came together to discuss, "How do we stop this?" You know? And that's when the ingenuity came out. And you found that a lot of people had a lot of ingenuity.

NARRATOR: The IRA started to booby-trap bombs with anti-handling devices. If the package was moved, a tilt switch would trigger the electrical circuit and set off the bomb. The army became adept at using a hook and line to pull suspect parcels away from buildings. They then placed a small amount of explosive next to the package. It provided enough force to blow the bomb's circuit apart, but not enough to set off the main charge.

SHANE O'DOHERTY: The idea of putting your bomb inside a wooden box, screwed down all the way around, meant that first of all, it couldn't be easily seen, what was going on inside it. That was the first part. And then, people were saying, you know, "Well, hell, you know, if it's an army bomb disposal team, let's give them something to work for, like, let's not aim just for the building in which we're trying to get our bomb to explode." That's reason enough to put an anti-handling device on. But then, they thought, you know, "Let's take out—Instead of trying to shoot a soldier on the border or shoot a soldier walking up the street in Derry, let's try and take out the ATO."

NARRATOR: The IRA started targeting the bomb disposal man himself. But these booby-trap devices were much more dangerous to plant. The best way of delivering such a bomb was in a car. The army needed to react quickly to this new threat. Some of the first experiments to defeat the car bomb used foam to try to dampen the blast.

INSTRUCTIONAL FILM V/O: The car is filled with foam, and on firing the charge, there are hardly any visible effects. In this demonstration, foam produced by the two standard fire-fighting generators, is delivered through polyethylene tubes directed towards a car bomb 30 meters away. The far end of the street is closed off with nylon mesh screens. The car and the street are smothered in foam, which arises to a height of about ten feet.

WO-1 MICK KETTLE: One of the counter measures that was introduced to try and deal with the problem of car bombs was filling the street with high-density foam to try and attenuate the blast from the car bomb. The vehicle would drive up towards the car bomb. It was one of our PIG vehicles. It had a nozzle on the top, and it would spew this high-density foam into the street. It was known as Foaming PIG. It was light your washing machine had gone awry and there's all this foam all over the place. And the whole street would fill up with foam, with the intention of stopping the damage. Unfortunately, it wasn't much of a success. It didn't actually reduce the blast damage too much. And if the device failed to function, then someone had the problem of wading through all this foam to try and find where the bomb was in order to deal with it. So all in all, it wasn't much of a success.

NARRATOR: An inventive Colonel, who was thinking about the car bomb problem in his back yard, came up with an original approach. He had developed an unusual way of cutting grass by tethering his lawn mower to a stake. In a flash of inspiration, he imagined using long ropes to steer a remote-controlled tow-hook towards a suspect car bomb. The operator would be far enough away to escape any blast if the bomb was accidentally triggered. The first prototype was built from garden machinery, and was nicknamed "Wheelbarrow."

COL. PETER MILLER: In one of its first uses, it went to a star garage at Belfast, where a suspect car was positioned near 40 other cars, and the garage itself.

NARRATOR: The rope was attached to a truck, which towed the suspicious car to a safe place where the bomb could be destroyed.

COL. PETER MILLER: So, its first use saved possibly 40 cars and possibly a garage. And at that time, the actual cost of a Wheelbarrow was 250 pounds.

NARRATOR: The Mark Two Wheelbarrows had a remotely controlled arm, which meant it could tackle a car bomb where it was parked. Peter Gurney, a former chief of the London Bomb Squad, was one of the first people to try it out in Belfast.

PETER GURNEY: This machine was really the first of the car bomb killers, because it had on the front an attachment to break a car window. Now, the idea was that you drove up onto this part that actually came in contact with a car window, and so it was forced in. This would spring out and break your car window. There was a lot of trouble with the early ones on these, because they tended to skid up a window, and you would find yourself unable to break the window. So, you had to withdraw the Wheelbarrow. And then, Colonel Miller modified them by fitting in a tungsten carbide tip in there which actually digs into the glass and stops it skidding.

NARRATOR: It delivered an explosive charge that was designed to disrupt the car bomb components without detonating the bomb. The tube of explosive was called candle.

INSTRUCTIONAL FILM V/O: Candle consists of 108 grams of aluminized explosive contained in a plastic tube and initiated by an electric detonator. When candle is fired, the car is opened up and there is a high probability that the IED will be completely disrupted.

NARRATOR: This is what came to be known as a controlled explosion.

PETER GURNEY: I've got a very soft spot for this particular model. It did save my neck many times in Belfast. I'm sure it saved an awful lot of operators' lives.

NARRATOR: The early models all had long umbilical cords to control their movement. Sometimes, these would become jammed in doorways. So, they fired a metal spike into the floor to hold the door open. This was the first Wheelbarrow to have a television camera enabling the operator to hunt for the bomb. It also had tank tracks which could climb stairs. But the long umbilical, which contained wires for steering and setting off the explosive, could be dangerous, as Peter Gurney found out when he was dealing with a suspicious car in Belfast.

PETER GURNEY: Whilst pulling the car out, unbeknown to myself, the car had actually gone over the top of the control cable for the robot, and it had scrubbed all the insulation off the wires.

NARRATOR: Behind the cover of their armored vehicle, Gurney's men attached the explosive candle to the robot arm. Unknown to them, the bare wires inside the damaged umbilical were touching, so when Gurney flicked the switch to move the robot, he set off the explosive charge. They were standing just a few feet away from the explosion. Gurney escaped lightly. His two colleagues were more seriously injured. With the robot wrecked, Gurney risked his life by placing the explosive candle in the suspect car. Being this close to a car bomb is always a last resort. Today, robots are usually radio-controlled. In this army exercise, there is the added complication that the bomb the soldiers are trying to locate is radio-controlled, too. So, to avoid triggering the device with radio signals, the robot trails a wire for firing the weapons that will blow apart the bomb. Some aspects of this scenario are off limits to cameras. They have been told the bomb has been planted outside an insurance office. They begin a systematic search, starting with the obvious place: a trash can. Unfortunately, it's empty. Later, they find the bomb in a flower bed. The bomb is blown apart using one of the most significant weapons in the bomb disposal arsenal: The Disrupter. The Disrupter was particularly useful for destroying booby-trapped, under-vehicle bombs.

PETER GURNEY: Initially, when the current campaign started, the only tool the bomb disposal operator had was really a Stanley knife, a few hand tools, a ball of string, and some detonating cord. But this, of course, meant you had to be with the bomb while you were defusing it, which is not a good idea. And we did lose quite a few operators. And then, along came the idea of knocking the bomb apart. This technique was called disruption.

SIDNEY ALFORD: Whereas most guns will be firing a solid projector, in this case, the barrel is filled most commonly with water. And if we put that in the vertical position—

PETER GURNEY: Let me hold it for you, why not.

SIDNEY ALFORD: Thank you very much. Once it's penetrated the case of a bomb, the slug of water which it projects bursts in all directions, and it tends to burst the bomb open from the inside. The idea, remember, is not to set the bomb off. It's to knock it apart, so you can gather up the components, but not to cause the bomb itself to explode. And out comes the pin.

PETER GURNEY: And of course, whilst this is all going on, you are operating this thing from a safe distance. It's fired electrically.

SIDNEY ALFORD: Firing! Four, three, two, one!

PETER GURNEY: This is a battery line down there.

SIDNEY ALFORD: It's a battery, which is closest. Here's the other side. Oh, detonator exposed.

PETER GURNEY: Nearly all terrorist bombs these days are electrically initiated. So, you aim it either to disable one of the vital components, which is a battery of the parcels within a bomb, or in destroying the circuitry, which will stop the current and get into the detonator, or in fact blowing the detonator away from the explosion, or vice versa.

NARRATOR: But disrupters could not penetrate bigger bombs concealed inside cars. The army had to resort to controlled explosions, which sometimes set off the whole bomb. As the IRA began planting bigger booby-trapped devices in the trunks of cars, this became an increasingly dangerous problem.

WO-1 MICK KETTLE: What we've got here is a typical example of the booby-trap device built into a beer keg. Beer kegs were used for quite a while as the container for the main charge, or main explosive charge. And they contained about 100 pounds of explosives. But hidden inside is a booby-trap switch. The booster bag on top, which provides the initial kick to get the explosives to function, is connected to this hidden explosive device. And if the operator is inclined to stick his hand in and pull out the booster bag, he will set this device off, setting off the whole of the explosive charge, and that will kill him.

SIDNEY ALFORD: Here we have a beer keg. The beer keg may well contain beer. On the other hand, it may be a bomb.

NARRATOR: The ingenuity of the IRA was matched by the imagination of inventors like Sidney Alford, who devised new counter measures to remove bombs from car trunks.

SIDNEY ALFORD: We have a device which consists of a case with this semi-cylindrical form. On the back of it, you can see taped, detonating cord. When this detonating cord explodes, it will squeeze the contents of this container. And this container contains water. This water will be projected, and it will be projected very fast.

NARRATOR: Propelled by high explosive, the slug of water blasts straight through the gas tank, and without igniting the fuel, lifts the beer keg 50 feet clear of the car. It can then be more completely disarmed. But as scientists produced counter measures, the IRA continued to come up with new devices.

SHANE O'DOHERTY: You were always aware, like making these devices, that any one of them could explode and kill you, and particularly our kind of homemade devices, or that somebody else's mistake could kill, which often happened to IRA volunteers. But no, you just didn't think about it. I mean, you tried not to think about it. Sometimes, when you were standing with a 1,000-pound lorry bomb or truck bomb, or standing on a lamp made of 1,000 pounds of explosives, you know, it would occur to you, what would it be like if this went off? You know? What would death be like in that kind of horrible, massive explosion, you know? And in one case when I was blown up by a letter bomb device—and I still have some of the damage on my body from that—I remember seeing the detonator of the device on a table in front of me explode. And all I remember seeing is this incredible rainbow of colors going past me, followed by a ferocious bang that blew me out the window of a house. And a couple of days later, I was back on the job again, you know?

NARRATOR: Shane O'Doherty was one of the first IRA bomb-makers to experiment with letter bombs. After he blew himself up on this street in Derry, the IRA offered him a more dangerous mission.

SHANE O'DOHERTY: One of the top GHQ guys came to see me when I was recuperating, "How would you feel about going to London and you know, really making a splash?" And I thought, my God, you know, whew! "This is the word?" "Sure." So, you know, it was like something as simple as—Two or three weeks later, I—Myself, you know, I stuck some four-ounce packets of black plastic explosive in a rucksack. I stuck some electric detonators in the tube frame of a rucksack. And I just took a flight to London with about 500 pounds in my pocket, went to a flat agency, got a flat, went out and bought a "Who's Who" and some stuff, and you know, little batteries and pieces of wire and tape, and aluminum foil. And that's it.

WO-1 MICK KETTLE: This is a book bomb, which would be wrapped into paper and sent as a parcel through the post. And it's similar to the sort of things that the likes of Shane O'Doherty would have produced. On unwrapping the device, we find that it's been hollowed out, and inside, there's maybe three or four ounces of semtex and a booby-trap switching mechanism, again containing a safety device for the terrorist so that whilst he's constructing the bomb, he doesn't put his life at unnecessary risk. And these sort of things have been sent right away through the campaign to all manner of people, army officers, members of Parliament. And that three or four ounces of explosive, if you're holding it close to your body like this, would certainly be enough to kill you.

SHANE O'DOHERTY: It's not a manly thing for a politically motivated sort of heroic figure to admit that conscience hurts you. You know? I mean, conscience does hurt me, you know? It doesn't give me pride or honor that I hurt civilians, that I hurt innocent people, that I maimed innocent people, who, while I sit here and move on with my life, are still wounded and maimed. It doesn't make me feel good. And it even grew upon me—And nobody warned me that it would—that later, that hitting so-called "legitimate" targets hurt my conscience, you know?

NARRATOR: Peter Gurney defused many of O'Doherty's bombs.

PETER GURNEY: Letter bombs are all designed to go off when opened. They are essentially anti-handling devices. But fortunately, x-rays have come in, and we were able to use this to make out what the contents of the letters were. These were a great innovation, these machines, the light-weight x-ray machines. This is a suspect package, in this case, which we put in front of it. We stand at the x-ray machine about a measure off, and if we move back, that machine is now functioning. So, we remove the cassette. You pull out the black tag, which pulls out the film, and peel away the cover. This is only a very small x-ray which consists of a detonator and the delayed-action timer. You can see the battery case in here. Oh, so the x-ray was taken in that line with the—You can see the battery pack. The detonator is buried in explosive here. You can just see the edge of the watch. And that was the—As I've opened it, the two wires have come together, which, had it been a real bomb, would have completed the circuit and caused the bomb to fire.

NARRATOR: By the end of the 80s, the bomb disposal teams were dealing with a new problem. The IRA had developed homemade mortar bombs, which they were firing at army barracks and police stations in Northern Ireland. On February 7, 1991, just after the Gulf War Cabinet had convened at 10 Downing Street, the Provisional IRA launched one of its most audacious operations. Half a mile away, they had parked a van and set a short timer to trigger a set of explosive charges. This was the first mortar attack on mainland Britain. Peter Gurney, as Head of the London Bomb Squad, was on the scene within minutes.

PETER GURNEY: Through the flames, I could see three large mortar tubes. And at about that time, I was told there had been an explosion in the garden of number ten, which is in the direction the vehicle was pointing, down here somewhere.

NARRATOR: But only one mortar shell had exploded.

PETER GURNEY: All I did was tell people to keep in the heart of the building, because there were two bombs possibly unaccounted for. And should these bombs either fire, and then detonate in the area, people would be safer in the heart of the building rather than outside on the streets. Then it comes, being led through the garden, one gave a quick look around and it was quite obvious that the bomb had gone off at the bottom end here.

NARRATOR: Where there had once been a cherry tree, there was a smoking crater. The blast had showered the cabinet office with glass and debris. Shrapnel damage is still visible on the garden walls.

WO-1 MICK KETTLE: This is the type of mortar that was used in the attack on Downing Street. It's what we call the Mark 10. It consists of a steel tube filled with explosives loaded into a slightly larger steel tube, and it's launched by a propulsion charge in the base. On launching, this pin, which is held by a wire, is pulled out, and this spring-loaded arming pin pops out, allowing the working parts of the fuse to detonate when it strikes a target. And out it comes.

NARRATOR: Two of the three mortar bombs failed to explode, landing on the other side of the wall, near a statue of Lord Mountbatten, himself a victim of a terrorist bomb. Working alone, to avoid placing others at risk, Peter Gurney locked the bomb between his legs and tried to remove the fuse.

PETER GURNEY: And then, slowly I became aware that it was getting quite hot, and there was a great scream of anguish. It was—My balls were on fire. The bomb was almost red hot, and I got off it rather quickly, found some snow, which was—It was beginning to snow at the time—and packed it into my trousers and then sat on the bomb again, and eventually managed to get the four bolts out. I then found the bomber actually burned—the filling had burnt out, the indication that it was very, very hot indeed. And it was, really in fact, an empty bomb. But anybody who saw me at the time must have wondered what on earth was going on, because I would sit on the bomb, take a couple of turns on a nut and jump up and rush around (laughter) and then come back and then have another go at the fuse. I was somewhat disappointed having gotten the fuse out to find out it was empty.

INTERVIEWER: That's an odd reaction. Why?

PETER GURNEY: Well, in fact, I had gone through all the danger of excitement of getting the fuse off, and then to find out—It was like opening a Christmas package and finding that there's nothing inside.

NARRATOR: It turned out the explosive in both mortar bombs had burned away without detonating. In bomb disposal training, young soldiers learn from the experiences of veterans like Peter Gurney. To qualify for duty in Northern Ireland, the men must get through this course. It has one of the highest failure rates in the British army.

INSTRUCTOR: We believe that a knowledge of terrorist tactics will aid your threat assessment. It will make you better at assessing the threat when you arrive at a scene. And what you will find is certain lessons that have been learned over the last 25 years. They will be illustrated and amplified by the things we talk about, because there are jobs that we can actually specifically point to in which led us then on that tactic.

NARRATOR: One of the most dreaded tactics was the hostage bomb. The IRA would tie a hostage into a van loaded with explosives and order him to drive to an army barracks. Luckily, in this case, the driver was freed by a sentry just before the explosion. In two similar incidents on the same day, the hostages were killed. To teach soldiers how to deal with such incidents, exercises are staged to test their ability to assess hidden danger. In this case, a radio receiver has been wired up to a trunk full of homemade explosives.

STUDENT OPERATOR: The cable for that runs around the back, along here. It joins up with the bomb from the front, around here, and onto the detonator there. Some of these sores is going to give you a really bad day.

NARRATOR: When the bomb disposal crew arrive on the scene, they are briefed by an instructor playing a police officer. He tells them there's a hostage strapped in the car.

INSTRUCTOR: There's this other car driving to our station up there, and there's a woman tied in the front seat, and she says there's a bomb in that car.

NARRATOR: This incident is a bomb disposal man's worst nightmare. There is no time to put on a protective suit or send in a remote control robot. In this situation, as the IRA is well aware, the bomb disposal man must risk his own life to save the victim. If the car is booby-trapped, pulling the door open might set off the bomb.

WOMAN: Will you get me out? Quick! I'm stuck, and it's going to go off!

STUDENT OPERATOR: Yeah, OK. Don't move, whatever you do. No, stay where you are, please.

NARRATOR: He searches for the detonator, the small explosive tube which sets off the main charge and forms the vital link between the electronic circuit and the bags of explosive. By cutting it out, he can reduce the immediate risk, but there could still be secondary devices concealed in the car.

WOMAN: How much longer? Can I get out?

STUDENT OPERATOR: No. You stay where you are, OK? It won't be two seconds.

NARRATOR: He has found a wire connected to the driver's door. If opened, it could set off an explosive charge.

STUDENT OPERATOR: Yes. You can come out this side, OK? Come on!



WOMAN: Aagh! (Both run from car.)

INSTRUCTOR: Very, very good. That was very good. I'm pleased with that.

NARRATOR: Once the area is clear, the crew can send in a remote controlled robot to finish off the job.

STUDENT OPERATOR: Stand by! Firing!

NARRATOR: As the IRA's booby-traps became more elaborate, the army relied on robots to play an increasingly important role in assessing dangerous situations. The Wheelbarrow has come a long way in 25 years. In seven out of ten incidents, it acts as the eyes and hands of the operator so that he can work on the bomb from the safety zone. It carries a pair of roving cameras to locate the device and a pair of disrupters to destroy it. For more cramped situations, Wheelbarrow has a smaller brother called "Buckeye" that can maneuver in narrow places like the aisles of trains or steep staircases. But the ultimate tool is still a long way off.

COLONEL "W": The holy grail must be a form of hand-held device, rather like a Dan Dare ray gun which will detect, will perhaps diagnose, and ultimately dispose of terrorist devices or criminal devices.

NARRATOR: Until that day, engineers will continue to improve the versatility of robots. One of the key problems is trying to fit the tools, cameras and weapons on the end of the arm. They are all competing for the same space. Perhaps robots will eventually have a selection of different tools and attachments that can be carried on board. The ultimate attachment would be a hand. Future designs may use a virtual reality gauntlet, so that the operator can slip his hand into a glove and feel, as well as see what he is doing. But even today's robots are remarkably sophisticated tools. They were being used so much in Northern Ireland that the IRA began to revise its tactics.

SHANE O'DOHERTY: If the bomb disposal team are going to send any robot anyway, who cares? Then, you've got to think, where are they going to send the robot in from? What street corner? What part of the street are they going to use as their operations point, you know? So, what manhole cover, what building, what wall of a building can you conceal something in?

NARRATOR: The bomb was now a lure. The bomb disposal squad had become the real target. In this exercise, the house is being booby-trapped with trip wires and pressure mats. The crew is told that there has been an explosion, but they know this could be a trap to entice them into the building. Nothing must be taken for granted when training for duty in Northern Ireland.

STUDENT OPERATOR: Somebody said there's been an explosion?

OFFICER: That's right.

STUDENT OPERATOR: What exactly happened?

NARRATOR: This officer's identify is concealed for security reasons.

OFFICER: Just to the front of the—your ICP there. You probably see the dirt in the road. The firing point's in this house up here on the right hand side.


OFFICER: We got a good look around and we found a battery pack in there as well on the actual furniture.

STUDENT OPERATOR: Right. OK. We got an explosion. When did the explosion actually take place?

OFFICER: Well, it was a while ago, actually. It was about 6:20.

STUDENT OPERATOR: To have such a small explosion that nobody gets killed, especially when they have the potential to put something really big out and catch them.

STUDENT OPERATOR #2: Yeah. If you're going to put a device out, you may as well put the one out.

STUDENT OPERATOR: Yeah. So, I've got a feeling that there might be something, a big bomb in the chest of drawers or something like that. So, we'll have to have a look-see.

NARRATOR: They decide to send in a robot to inspect the house.

STUDENT OPERATOR #2: Can you get him through the doors?

STUDENT OPERATOR: We'll see if we can get him a Wheelbarrow, and if we can't, then I might use Buckeye. But see, you should be able to get in with Barrow, to be honest.

NARRATOR: Once a safe path has been cleared by Wheelbarrow, he puts on an armored suit before checking out the house. Just as a soldier never goes on duty without his rifle, so a bomb disposal man always takes a disrupter. Inside this house, three booby-trap bombs have been laid. Each is designed to kill the bomb disposal man. Using a metal detector, he locates a pressure mat under the carpet. If he stood on the mat, it would complete an electric circuit, triggering a bomb. He scans each doorway with a thin, metal wand and a flashlight, searching for tripwires. Often, these are thin fishing lines which are very hard to see. By focusing his eyes along the wand, he can concentrate his attention. Meticulously following these procedures, searching according to a well-defined plan, prepares him for the dangers he may soon have to face in Northern Ireland. He catches the glint of light from a fishing line and follows it to a homemade bomb hidden around the corner.

STUDENT OPERATOR: Suppose how you come through the whole house and set all three devices off without finding them. Then yeah, you'd be a bit worried about going across these. So, the whole idea is, if you look properly, use all the search equipment properly, then the only thing that's going to get you killed at the end of the day is plain bad luck.

CAPTAIN ATKINSON: Good morning. I'm Captain Atkinson, the Grim Reaper. But I think most of you know that. Before I tell you where you're going, and what dates you're going, I'd just like to say, well done on passing this course. There was a stage last year when I came here, and out of eleven operators, no one actually passed. So, to come here today and see seven operators is quite a luxury. So, well done.

NARRATOR: They could be sent anywhere in Northern Ireland. One of the most dangerous places has been South Armagh, where the IRA controls the area and has the freedom to set the most elaborate booby-traps. In such dangerous terrain, all operations are carried out by helicopter. The equipment has to be flown in because it's too risky to travel by road. These units are always aware that they might be walking into a trap, with the IRA watching their every move. One of the most notorious incidents happened on the Belfast to Dublin railway line, right on the border with the Republic of Ireland.

WARRANT OFFICER "K": When you go up, you encounter an incredible feeling of loneliness and isolation. You are on your own, particularly down in that area, where you're stuck up on an embankment and there is nothing around you but low hills and dry stone walls. And despite the fact that you're surrounded by one or two companies of infantry, you still feel lonely.

NARRATOR: He had been called out to investigate an explosion on a track. He quickly spotted another bomb a few yards away, and set to work disarming it. Unknown to him, there was a carefully hidden third bomb, which went off just as he walked past.

WARRANT OFFICER "K": I was aware of a rushing sound, a roar, and what appeared to be a wall of gray. After that, I passed out. Those who were watching me say that they saw me fly through the air about 20 feet or so, and then land on the ground again. I came to very, very briefly, and was promptly knocked down by my number two, who had rushed forward to check that I was A), alive, B), in fairly big pieces. After that, I didn't really feel like taking very much more interest in the day.

NARRATOR: The bomb had been triggered remotely by an IRA man watching the scene from across the border. When the team returned two days later to check the area, they discovered a fourth device.

WARRANT OFFICER "K": I started uncovering some of the wires and found four bags, each containing about 50 pounds of homemade explosive linked to a detonator. I then followed the wires, expecting to find maybe a pressure mat or a radio-controlled receiver or something like that, and found that the wire ended abruptly. One on one row aligned, and the other wire from the detonator on the other row aligned. At this point, I was having a real problem thinking, what on earth is it here? And then, I just happened to look up the length of the row aligned, and thought, oh, Christ, this is a command wire device. What they had done was use the railway lines as an alternative to domestic cable, which they use as a command wire. At that point, I got out very, very quickly. Despite wearing the suit, I could have beaten Lynford Christie at the hundred meters.

NARRATOR: They quickly blew a hole in the tracks to break the circuit and prevent the IRA from having a second chance to blow up the bomb disposal man. He was awarded a medal for his bravery.

WARRANT OFFICER "K": There are certainly times when you think, what the hell am I doing here? Everybody just gets on with their job and does it. Certainly, the next month, I went on leave, and people said that I was a little bit weird. But then some people would say, "How could they tell?"

SHANE O'DOHERTY: To go up against the best IRA units in South Armagh, it's an extremely brave job. I mean, in some cases, you know, when working on such devices myself, I would think, you know—I would look at the bravery of these kids or IRA people working on them and think, you know, we're crazy. But to go in there for not a very great wage and for a very scant thanks from the community, and risk your life over some of the best devices that the IRA ever did plant and try and defuse them—I mean, you know, they've got unbelievable courage. And a lot of people in the IRA would have no trouble at all saluting the courage of these people, because I mean, it must be one of the bravest things that a human being can take on, to take on a bomb.

NARRATOR: As long as terrorists plant bombs, there will be bomb disposal teams devising new methods of defusing them. In 1995, life almost returned to normal in Northern Ireland with the IRA's cease-fire. That was shattered when a huge bomb was planted in London at Canary Wharf in February, 1996. Later that year, the IRA struck again, this time at the Headquarters of the British Army in Northern Ireland. In late 1997, as peace talks continued under a fragile, new cease-fire, the men of the Bomb Squad hoped that the deadly cat-and-mouse game with the IRA might soon be over. One thing will never change: the universal horror of the terrorist bomb.

ANNOUNCER: From bomb defusers to personal assistants, can robots be trained to navigate cluttered rooms, recognize intruders, pick up your slippers? Proceed to NOVA's website at

To order this show for $19.95 plus shipping and handling, call 1-800-949-8670. And to learn more about how science can solve the mysteries of our world, ask about our many other NOVA videos.

NOVA is a production of WGBH-Boston.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation. Dedicated to education and quality television.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and viewers like you.

This is PBS.

ANNOUNCER: Next time on NOVA, he conquered Fermat's Theorem and made international headlines.

SCHOLAR: It was so indescribably beautiful.

ANNOUNCER: The world of mathematics will never be the same.

SCHOLAR: I was flabbergasted, excited, disturbed.

ANNOUNCER: How did this man solve an enigma that mystified the greatest minds for centuries? The Proof.

ANNOUNCER: For ten years, we've been making history. The American Experience. Because the past is ever present.


Bomb Squad

Written, Produced
and Directed by
David Dugan

Hal Linden

Associate Producer
Nicole Arend

Paul Shepard

Steve Standen
Colin Waldeck
Geoff Harris
Robert Davis

Sound Recording
Tim Watts
Mike McDuffie
Antony Meering
Martin Wilson
Dudley Holden

Camera Assistants
John Walker
Peter Thorn
Kirsten Priebe

Original Music
Peter Howell

Sound Mix
Bob Jackson
George Foulgham

Online Editors
Tim Allison
Rob Cooper

Production Manager,
Windfall Films
Terry Bezant

Production Accountant
Sue Harvard

Production Assistant
Emma Rapley

Special Thanks
The Felix Centre
The Army School of Ammunition
321 Squadron

NOVA Series Graphics
National Ministry of Design

NOVA Theme
Mason Daring
Martin Brody

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

Production Secretaries
Queene Coyne
Linda Callahan

Stella Giamassi
Paul Marotta
Lisa Cerqueira

Nancy Marshall

Post Production Associate
Sandra Rizkallah

Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto

Post Production Online Editors
Mark Steele
Tom Pugh

Post Production Director
Alison M. White

Unit Managers
Laurie Cahalane
Amy Trahant

Business Manager
Carolyn Birmingham

Science Editor
Lauren S. Aguirre

Senior Producer
Coproductions and Aquisitions
Melanie Wallace

Series Producer
Beth Hoppe

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A Windfall Films Production for NOVA/WGBH in association with Channel 4

© 1997 WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved.


About NOVA | NOVA Homepage | Support NOVA

© | Created September 2006